Robert Broome, a practitioner from our online action research exchange, explores how language and context matters when embedding Functional Skills.
My name is Robert Broome. I’m a level 1 course team leader in professional cookery at North Hertfordshire College and I am also completing my PGCE teaching degree at Bedford college. As part of my course I was asked to complete an action research project of my choice. Because I teach on a vocational course, I decided to see whether adding contextualised examples of maths and English work within my cookery sessions could help students with their maths and English studies. This has been of interest to me not only within my profession but because, I too at 28 years old struggle with English in a general sense (e.g. reading, spelling and breaking down of text).
A report from the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, Department for Education, and The Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP (published 2 July 2014) stated:
‘Many students have problems in maths and English all the way through the progressing to adult life. “40% of pupils do not get GCSE grades A* to C in English and maths by age 16. Worse still, 90% of those who don’t reach this basic standard by 16, don’t achieve it by age 19” (dept. of education, 2018).
Another interesting study made by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), states that older generations tend to perform better in maths and English based tasks than younger learners.
I researched into these claims by the government by conducting my own experiment with a few of my level 1 professional cookery students. I asked a few GCSE standard maths and English questions and the average score out of 13 was 7-8, which works out to be 57% of the mark. I then asked the same questions to adult learners, all of whom were over the age of 40. The average score for the older learners was 11-12 out of 13, which is 88% of the mark.’
After compiling data whereby I had asked students GCSE standard questions in both Maths and English, I then used their knowledge of Professional cookery to help them progress and challenge them in these areas. In order to do this I took the GCSE questions and “re-worded” them with terminology based around catering and hospitality. I also gave students visual aids to help them around the kitchen classroom. This process was much the same with maths; my aim was to get students to think of maths in the hospitality industry as opposed to working from a textbook. My hope was that this approach would help learners:
- See the relevance of maths and English skills within professional cookery;
- encourage a subconscious style of learning, helping students learn through experience and by what they saw and heard in the kitchens.
- encourage reluctant students to learn important maths and English skills, without these needing to be explicitly taught.
- Help close the maths and English skills gap I noticed between younger learners, and adult learners.
Following this period of embedded and contextualised maths and English work, I then asked students the GCSE standard questions again and cross referenced their answers with the previous ones to see if there were any improvements, big or small. With each group of learners there were slight improvements, with most learners scoring at least one point more than they had during the first test. The graph below shows the differences in learners’ scores, before and after they had accessed contextualised English and maths work:
Whilst the gains in learners’ test results initially seem quite small, perhaps more telling was their improved spelling of contextualised vocabulary. One example I did of this was when I asked the students how to spell ‘Tagliatelle’. Initially, only 1 student out of 15 got it correct. I then posted around the two kitchens a glossary of types of pasta where Tagliatelle was on this. A couple of days later I asked the class to spell Tagliatelle again. The number of students who spelt it correctly grew from 1 to 3. Not a huge leap but then an additional 4 students were only 1 or 2 letters off the correct spelling, a huge improvement in such a short period of time!
If I was to sum up my research it would be that vocational courses can have an impact on a students’ maths and English skills in both a positive and a negative way. The positives are clearly seen in my research, if teachers keep pushing maths and English in their lessons then students will progress. The negative however is that I noticed a lot of my students didn’t realise how important Maths and English is to vocational courses and professions. The mentality is for most was once they have finished maths and English at GCSE then they don’t need to think about it again. This is where students can slip on their skills in Maths and English over the two to three years they are in vocational courses at colleges. This potential for slippage adds to employers’ concerns that college leavers do not always have the maths and English skills they require for the working world. I believe that by constantly reminding students on vocational courses how important Maths and English is in the working world, alongside constantly embedding and contextualising maths and English work (to the point where students may not realise that’s what they are doing) vocational teachers can make a massive impact upon students’ motivation, engagement and success in maths and English, during their time at college and in the future.
I also think it’s vital for tutors to keep up to date on their own Maths and English, so we can help students and so we can improve our own confidence to teach these essential skills.